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Tim Bonner: Wolves, foxes and the fate of the curlew

Culling wolves is not an issue the Alliance has to deal with directly as a result of their extinction on our islands in the 17th Century. That is something of a relief as elsewhere it is as contentious an issue as the UK’s political obsession with hunting with hounds.

The debate in Europe seems to have been significantly affected by the death of a pony called Dolly which was killed by wolves on an estate in Lower Saxony. This was something of an error by the wolves as Dolly was the childhood pony of European Union Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen who has subsequently said that there needs to be a new interpretation of the rules around wolf hunting in the EU.

Elsewhere in the world the arguments for wolf culling have been more scientifically based. In Canada, a newly published study has found that reducing wolf numbers is vital for the recovery of critically threatened mountain caribou populations. Management to aid caribou recovery, including the culling of wolves, has increased the abundance of southern mountain caribou by 52%, compared with a simulation with no interventions. When predation pressure from wolves was reduced, biologists found “rapid” population growth and there are now 4,500 caribou in the two provinces which is 1,500 more than there would have been with no interventions.

One of the report’s authors summed up the dilemma by saying that whilst it is not the wolves’ fault, if we don’t shoot wolves we will lose caribou.

Whilst we might not have wolves, this dilemma is very relevant to debates about the management of species in the UK. For all the flowery prose written about rewilding and natural processes we live on a group of islands every inch of which has been affected by the impact of man for thousands of years. Our countryside will never reach an equilibrium where the curlew and the fox, the grey partridge and the crow or the fallow deer and the nightingale live in perfect harmony. If we want to retain some species, we need to actively maintain a balance. That is a requirement and arguably a duty of responsible land managers.

The frustration that many of us feel is that despite ample evidence that, for instance, culling foxes is a crucial element of any curlew recovery project, there is still a huge reluctance from many conservation organisations to actually take that step. Just as in the case of the Canadian wolves it is not the foxes’ fault, but that does not change the reality if we really want to protect curlew.

Much of this reluctance comes from the increasingly blurred lines between environmental organisations and the animal rights movement. Supposedly responsible conservation organisations like the RSPB and Wildlife and Wetlands Trust choose to sit in coalitions with extreme groups like the League Against Cruel Sports and Born Free, which reject any case for management of almost any species in almost any circumstances. It is not surprising then that these so-called conservationists are reluctant to accept that case themselves, but they will have to decide whether they are really interested in saving species like the curlew before there are no curlew left to save.

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